The Foul King (반칙왕, Kim Jee-woon: 2000)

Dae-ho is in a dead-end job as a bank clerk – a position which bores him. He is both verbally and physically bullied by his boss and feels that he has no direction and little worthwhile in his life. When he stumbles across a local wrestling centre he is inspired to join through fond childhood memories of the sport, his favourite wrestler being a cheating character called ‘Ultra Tiger Mask’. Dae-ho bugs the owner of the centre to train him as a new but unlikely wrestler, and while he chooses to keep his new hobby a secret from his friends and work colleagues, he finds that it empowers him, and gives him the confidence to stand up against the bullies and people who try to push him around…

Director Kim Jee-woon follows up his successful début The Quiet Family with the unlikely tale of a man finding self-worth and confidence through wrestling. Although the central concept is ripe for plenty of laughs and jokes – and like The Quiet Family the humour ranges from very broad and slapstick to the more dry and ironic – Kims script also perfectly merges these with the story of a man struggling to come to terms with the direction of his life. Addressing the workplace, the home and one mans dreams through a sense of self found in an unlikely pastime, Song Kang-ho (in his first starring role) is exceptional as Dae-ho and manages to tie both the dramatic elements – which are surprisingly strong – with the constant humour.

While the subject of wrestling occupies a large portion of The Foul King‘s running time, it’s a film that is far from brimming with scenes of the sport (or entertainment, whichever way you look at it). The majority of the ‘wrestling scenes’ are saved for a lengthy climactic match, with the rest of the film peppering moments in the ring (real and imagined) with scenes that illustrate Dae-ho’s struggle, determination and commitment to his new interest. In other words, Dae-ho gets hurt alot. This is always counterbalanced with moments from the rest of his life – how he deals with the people around him and how his attitude changes. It’s a clever balancing act, and Kim Jee-woon sneakily hides a fairly conventional drama behind the scenes of the ‘wrestling comedy’ selling point.

One element of surprise in The Foul King regarding Song Kang-ho’s Dae-ho is just how physical his performance is. Although his acting chops have been well and truly proven since The Foul King (although on its release this was the film the made him a bonafide star and proved the he was more than just a great comedy actor), the commitment to the character here is impressive as he performs his own stunts – something which undoubtedly adds to the energy of the film. The rest of the cast is a great line-up, with plenty of recognisable faces such as Park Sang-myun (My Wife Is A Gangster) as a fellow wrestler and training partner, Song Young-chang as Dae-ho’s bullying boss, Jang Jin-young (Sorum) and the excellent Kim Soo-ro (Vampire Cop Ricky) as wrestler Yu Bee-ho, as well as a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos.

The Foul King might sell itself as a wrestling comedy, but first and foremost it’s a coming of age film. Dae-ho’s uneasy journey to becoming the kind of man who believes in and has confidence in himself is all the more striking because Kim Ji-woon’s script takes some cartoonish ideas and gives them a sense of reality. Firstly, Dae-ho himself is a bit of an idiot. It’s to the credit of Song Kang-ho’s performance that he’s as likeable as he is, as he largely veers from being a wet blanket to a misguided  idiot, somewhere along the line engaging with the excitement of life that he usually saves for his daydreams. There’s a similarly broad approach to the supporting characters – they appear larger than life before becoming honed in on them and being given some depth. Dae-ho’s bully boss is a good example: wrestling his employee in the toilets in order to physically assert his position of power, he’s a nasty piece of work. But he’s also well written and well acted so as not to remove the character from the real world – he’s a recognisable type. Just enough weight is also given to the rest of the supporting roles to keep the film from slipping into out and out comedy and keeping the dramatic element intact which makes the finale – which inevitably represents everything that Dae-ho has been pushing himself to achieve – all the more rewarding.

A massive smash on its domestic release, The Foul King is nothing but likeable. With a central performance from Song Kang-ho that blends the comedy and drama – and with a sharp sense of the irony that ties the two together – its a rewarding film that dips just a little deeper than standard popcorn entertainment simply by having well drawn characters and more than just a simplistic approach to a man struggling to find his place in the modern world. Oh, and it’s also a great lesson in why you should be very careful with your ‘stunt’ forks…

반칙왕 (The Foul King)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Produced by Lee Mi-yeon
Written by Kim Jee-woon
Starring Song Kang-ho, Jang Jin-young, Park Sang-myun, Kim Su-ro, Jang Hang-sun, Jung Woong-in

The Foul King Image © Bom Film Productions Co. Ltd